Fake news: What to do when real people end up in phony stories

Like no other event, the US presidential election laid bare the newly scrambled media landscape where the work of fake news sits often with equal billing on Facebook, Twitter and other internet terrain, alongside stories from legitimate journalistic institutions.

In the run-up to the election, we saw stories linking a senior Hillary Clinton strategist to occult rituals involving bodily fluids; another from the “Denver Guardian” about an FBI agent on the Clinton email case who had murdered his wife and shot himself; and one about a “secret memo” from Clinton’s pollster detailing plans to “salvage” her candidacy.

Fake news was so pervasive it tripped up Donald Trump’s son Eric who tweeted a false “ABC” story about a man who claimed he was paid $3,500 from the Clinton campaign to protest at Trump rallies. In his tweet, Eric wrote, “Finally the truth comes out! #CrookedHillary.”

In part, we’re hearing more about fake news because of its threat to the integrity of our political system and the way it undermines legitimate media outlets, but fake news sites have been around for some time as money-making ventures. In 2012, for example, the FTC announced a settlement with marketers who used fake news sites to boast claims made about weight-loss products and colon cleansers. 

The money motive is still much alive. A recent Buzzfeed investigation reported on a “digital gold rush” in the Macedonian town of Veles where locals have launched at least 140 political websites over the last year. And it’s not because they’re interested in politics. It’s the money that moving them. As Buzzfeed wrote, a “fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising—a declining market for American publishers—goes a long way in Veles.”

That’s a relevant point for businesses. With decent profit motive, there is a chance anything, including stories mentioning your firm or your firm’s employees, can make it on to a fake news site. It may not be done with malicious intent, only just to get a few page views, or it may be an attempt to advance a political agenda on either end of the spectrum. Whatever the motive, real people and real organizations are increasingly caught in the fray.

We’ve noted a growing number of fake news sites that, instead of writing fake stories, pull existing content from legitimate news sites, alter it slightly (and often sloppily) and post it to the web. These real identities lend credence to spurious sites, and the actual “sources” are often deeply concerned when these mentions turn up in regular news alerts. So, what can they do about it?


The future of Biglaw may hinge on culture

I recently spent a week in our London office. It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since we announced our international merger. The similarity in work ethic, temperament and approach to client service between our US and UK staff always stands out to me, and has been a tremendous factor in how well our integration process has gone. But it gets me thinking, too, about the subtle complexity of any merger. In an era when international law firm mergers are a seemingly daily occurrence, it’s hard to fathom how many pieces they’re trying to fit together.

Culture matters. This is the thought that rolls around in my head every time I read about yet another megafirm merger. A law firm’s culture is a real differentiator, and there are two camps: those firms with a clearly defined culture, and those firms whose culture is to have no culture. What’s striking is how resolute the two camps are about the power of their model. Is it possible they can both be right? Sure. Is it likely that one model is inferior and more prone to implosion? Absolutely.

Law firms are, on a good day, a delicate strand of pearls. Without non-competes to bind them to their organization, lawyers are able to move freely from one firm to another with their portable books of business. In times of trouble at a firm–a drop in profits, an unappealing merger, a scandal, the loss of a large group–it’s nearly impossible to ignore the allure of packing up for greener grass on the other side, particularly when recruiters are pounding at the door and the lawyers down the hall are leaving in droves. What is the one thing that can keep a firm together in difficult times? A strong culture, one that emphasizes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Culture matters to clients, too. An integrated model means law firm partners in New York will confidently refer business to their colleagues in, say, Moscow, because they likely know something about the partners and the quality of their work. Firms that emphasize culture and the ability to integrate lateral hires, recognize that there are tangible benefits to applying a small-firm vibe to a global firm.

In contrast, the most spectacularly failed merger in recent memory–Dewey & LeBoeuf–essentially began with the creation of an internal class system that rewarded select partners with lucrative side deals that became albatrosses to the firm. When the firm’s survival depended, in part, on certain partners amending the terms of their guaranteed deals, they allegedly refused, and it wasn’t long before the dominos began to fall with breathtaking speed. Could a stronger culture have saved Dewey? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it is fair to assume that many of the underlying elements leading to Dewey’s demise–outsized incentives that created a star culture, the inability to fully integrate Dewey Ballantine and LeBoeuf Lamb, a complete lack of transparency–would not have existed in a firm that valued culture over growth for the sake of growth.

The challenges of effective law firm cultural integration play out in the context of a rapidly evolving market. The pressures facing Am Law 100 firms in 2016 vs. 2006 are akin to the pressures on a college student vs. a third grader. Indeed, many of the new global megafirms, whose size and scale are the differentiators, were created as a strategic response to a post-recession world. The question is: Are these firms built to withstand the inevitable storms all law firms face, or will they crater under their own weight? Certainly, some will fail while others thrive, and I would not be surprised if culture was a deciding factor.  

Jamie Diaferia is CEO of Infinite Global